Vero is moving to get old sewer plant off lagoon

After 60 years of having a wastewater treatment plant on the shore of the Indian River Lagoon at 17th Street, the City of Vero Beach has taken the first steps to construct a new plant at the airport and dismantle the aging waterside facility, freeing up valuable riverfront land and eradicating a smelly eyesore that has been a notable flaw in Vero’s cityscape.

The council authorized Water and Sewer Utility Director Rob Bolton to commission initial engineering work, which will take about 90 days. In November, the project should be in the financial planning stage, Bolton said, with a proposal coming back to the council for a vote in December.

Mayor Harry Howle has been working on the issue with Bolton for almost four years. “It’s time, obviously,” Howle said, “to get an industrial eyesore off the river.”

Howle said he spoke to Indian River County officials about the idea of the county taking Vero’s waste into its own system and, in his opinion, that’s not a mutually beneficial solution. “In my mind, that ask is over,” Howle said, adding that it’s neither the county’s fault nor the city’s fault that a workable deal could not be reached.

The other option Howle investigated was a privately-owned utility, but he said there was a big downside to that approach. “You’ve lost control over the ability to improve service, try to keep rates under control, etc.,” he said.

With options narrowed significantly, Howle said, building a new plant at the Vero Beach Regional Airport property the city already owns seems like the best solution.

Councilman Val Zudans ran on a promise to get the sewer plant off the river and said he wants it done sooner than later. Mayor Lange Sykes, too, has been concerned about having the treatment facility on the lagoon, from an environmental standpoint as well as an aesthetic one. Councilwoman Laura Moss and Councilman Tony Young also backed the idea of moving the plant. Young had previously spoken out against proposals to sell the utility to the county or privatize it.

The existing plant, designed to treat 4.5 million gallons per day, was built in 1977 to replace an obsolete 1958 plant that treated 2.2 million gallons a day. Prior to that, a 1920s plant and a World War II-era U.S. Navy wastewater facility dumped treated wastewater into a relief canal.

Both the 1977 and 1958 plants discharged treated wastewater directly into the lagoon, as was the practice until 2010, when the Indian River Lagoon Act prohibited such discharges and Vero invested in a deep-injection well at the airport that deposits both wastewater and brine from water treatment thousands of feet down into the ground.

Bolton said the debt on the existing plant will be paid off in 2022, and that it would take two years to construct the new plant, plus time to test it before wastewater can be diverted from the riverfront plant so decommissioning can begin. Payments on the new debt – likely tens of millions for the airport plant – can kick in when the old debt payments roll off, City Manager Jim O’Connor said.

“The structure of the debt can determine when we want to have that debt and still time it around when the existing debt expires. So we’re looking at a transition of this without having any impact on the fees that we charge today,” O’Connor said.

Zudans urged the city staff to fast-track the project, saying 2022 is too far away, and O’Connor said he did think there were some creative things the city could do financially prior to the existing debt being paid off.

Bolton pointed out that there are savings to be had by waiting a year or two for inflation in the construction market to shake out.

“It’s a great time to be designing something; it’s not a great time to be bidding something,” Bolton said.

Once both the sewer plant, Big Blue and the electric substation and switching equipment are dismantled, the city will own 23.7 acres of prime riverfront property with a total of 1,120 linear feet on the water – not including the canal south of the wastewater treatment plant – according to a report previously prepared for the council by Vero’s Chief Surveyor David Gay.

No decisions have been made yet about what Vero and its citizens want to see built – or not built – on that land, but it could end up giving Vero an attractive riverfront sector with the appeal of the nicely developed riverfronts in places like Stuart, Fort Pierce, Sebastian and Melbourne.

“Something great can happen on both of those sites,” Zudans said.

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